Is Graduate School Worth It? Find Out For Yourself In 3 Steps


Upon graduating from college or after working for a few years, you might start to get a nagging feeling begging the question: Is graduate school worth it?

I knew after working full-time for three years that feeling was nagging me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was eager for an escape.

Then, through a series of fortuitous events, I found myself with a letter of acceptance to NYU, my dream school. At the time, I wanted to go to graduate school because I wanted to expand my horizons and I was really interested in becoming a professor.

I went to my dream school—and paid the price for it. Upon graduation, my priorities had shifted, and I realized that I didn’t want to be stuck in the ivory tower of academia by becoming a professor. Everything I thought I wanted was no longer valid, but I was stuck paying the debt for that old dream.

I often think to myself, was going to graduate school worth it? It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely better to ask that question before going, rather than after!

If you are thinking of going to graduate school, this post will help you make a decision as to if it’s worth it or not for you.

What You Should Consider

Graduate school can be expensive and can often come with limited funding opportunities. If you are thinking of going to graduate school, consider:

  • The cost of tuition
  • The amount of years required by your desired program
  • Public school versus private school tuition costs
  • In-state versus out-of-state tuition costs
  • Funding options like grants and scholarships
  • Extra fees like room, board, administrative fees, books, etc.
  • Does your employer offer tuition reimbursement?

All of these things will affect how much it really costs to go to graduate school. While some schools have great funding and scholarship opportunities, others have limited-to-no funding. This may force you to take out Graduate PLUS loans, which have a fixed, high interest rate compared to most undergraduate loans.

If you are unable to cover the cost of tuition from a PLUS loan, you might have to take out a private student loan, which comes with fewer repayment advantages and stricter terms than their federal counterparts.

In addition to the actual cost of tuition, it’s important to think about the opportunity cost of going to graduate school as well as the return on investment. Let’s say you make $40,000 per year in your current job and your desired graduate program is 2 years long. You are essentially losing out on $80,000 in wages by going to graduate school.

By going to graduate school, will you be able to recoup those wages? Will you be able to earn a higher salary after graduation?

It can be tough to say, as job prospects and potential salary depend on a lot of factors, such as geographic location, major, and experience. According to data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, workers with a Bachelor’s have a median weekly income of $1,101, whereas those with a Master’s degree have a median income of $1,326. In addition, the unemployment rate goes from 3.5% to 2.8% for those with a Master’s degree.

However, your major and location play a huge role in your salary and job prospects. Look on sites like Glassdoor and Payscale to see potential salaries of your desired job.

What Are You Trying to Achieve?

If you’re contemplating whether or not you should go to graduate school, think about what you are trying to achieve. Do your life goals match up with going to graduate school, or is it a move based on something that you think you should do?

While going to graduate school may be a noble thing to do, there are right and wrong reasons to go to graduate school.

You consider going to graduate school if:

  • You are limited in job opportunities by NOT having a graduate degree
  • You are looking to change careers completely
  • You want to be a professor
  • Your employer will pay for it
  • Your career requires it, such as those pursuing medicine or law

You should consider NOT going to graduate school if:

  • You are unsure what to do after you graduate with your bachelor’s degree
  • You are unemployed and think graduate school will solve everything
  • You are looking to escape your job
  • You’d like to “try” something new
  • You want to move and think grad school is your gateway to the new city
  • You think you need graduate school to legitimize your art, knowledge, career, etc.

If any of these reasons why you shouldn’t go resonate with you, here’s what you might want to try instead:

  • Try volunteering in your free time. If you are looking to try out something new or if you are unhappy with what you are currently doing, volunteering is a great way to find fulfillment and explore new options.
  • If you are unemployed or are looking to escape your current job, start looking for a new job. As tedious as unemployment or feeling stuck in a dead-end job may be, it is still cheaper than accruing thousands of dollars of student loan debt.
  • Consult with a mentor, career coach, or therapist if you find yourself in a rut and are unsure what to do in your life.

Be Realistic

Making the decision to go to graduate school is not something that should be done lightly. It can have huge ramifications on your financial future in positive and negative ways. It’s important to be realistic and think about what your life will look like after your program ends.

A good rule to follow is to avoid borrowing more than you expect to make your first year out of grad school. If you go to a top private school, major in history, and graduate with $120,000 in debt, making six-figures in your first year out of school is uncommon. Sure, anything is possible, but it’s unlikely.

It’s also important to consider the economic climate for certain professions, such as teaching and law.

Currently, there is increasing competition for tenure-track positions as more students are getting PhDs than ever before and adjunct professors are struggling to get a fair wage.

For those pursuing law, a report by the National Association for Law Placement offers some sobering statistics. The report states that the overall employment rate for new law grads has dropped for the sixth year in a row.

I know being realistic and sharing such statistics can be depressing—I’m not trying to dash your dreams, I promise! But it is important to really think about what life will look like after your program and what opportunities will be available.

Final Word

Graduate school can be an immensely rewarding experience—one that pushes you to greater heights, expands your social circle, and gives you an edge over other job candidates. However, having a master’s or doctorate degree doesn’t guarantee anything.

If you are thinking of going to graduate school, think seriously about the financial, emotional, and career costs of doing so. Weigh the costs and benefits.

Ultimately, it’s a personal decision whether you decide to go to graduate school or not, so make the best decision for you.

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